The Death of Semele by Peter Paul Rubens.
Cornell University stands on a bluff near the south end of central New York’s Lake Cayuga stretching slenderly, but deeply out of sight to the north. Adjacent to Cornell on a hill barely two miles farther to the south is Ithaca College, founded in 1892 as a conservatory for eight music students in a statuesque Italianate mansion on DeWitt Park, the city of Ithaca’s central square.
Having expanded in size and non-musical curricular offerings since its founding, Ithaca College moved in the 1960s from the urban flats up onto South Hill where the campus enjoyed plenty of room and tremendous views up the length of Lake Cayuga. The architecture of the relocated college is of its time: the twin dormitory towers of concrete that rise highest from the hillside are the hallmark of the campus and indeed of Ithaca and environs as seen from the north. There are newer additions made during the decades since the relocation: obligatory green touches of grassy roof and solar glass here, and there a vast sports and events center presided over by a Shard-like tower that has the flimsy grandeur of a James Bond bad guy’s command center. You expect to see such an outlandish big-screen flourish perched on a Himalayan glacier or Saharan sand dune not chewing the scenery in the middle of a former cow pasture carved out of the hardwood forests of the Allegheny Plateau.
Ithaca College has nearly 7,000 students, Cornell some 21,000, including both undergraduates and graduates. Claiming 30,000 residents within the city limits, Ithaca has an abundant proportion of students: it’s a college town twice.
There is little collaboration between the two institutions. In nearly twenty years of teaching at Cornell, I’ve had two Ithaca College students in my classes. IC’s School of Music has a world-class faculty and attracts many excellent students; the musicians of Cornell have long had cordial relations with their IC colleagues and undertaken joint performing projects both large and small. In the lofty realm of ideas, however, there is little exchange: music historians of each place rarely talk to one another, at least not about their scholarship.
Occasionally the two hormonal waves of student bodies roll down their respective hills and into Ithaca’s bars and restaurant, crashing into one another in a surge of beer suds and other foams. It’s a force of nature whose vitality has not been felt since the glaciers carved out Lake Cayuga and then departed, some 10,000 years ago.
In the bogus hierarchies of American higher learning in which prestige and branding often count for more than knowledge and imagination, Cornell’s reputation stands impregnable behind the moat dug by two words: Ivy League. For some the resonance of that phrase goes as deep as Lake Cayuga itself.
Yet even if Cornell ranks higher on the mythical status board of elitism, IC’s geographical superiority is undeniable: its position on South Hill is well above Cornell’s and from these heights one enjoys a hovering perspective on the western outpost of the Ivy League nearby. Cornell’s stone clock tower at the edge of the slope leading down to the town stakes out a storied nineteenth-century past. The first Beaux Arts-style halls proceed to the north along what became the Arts Quad. From this core established 150 years ago, buildings spread out with chaotic urgency. Down slope from the clock tower are the new dormitories of Cornell’s West Campus looming up like a fortress, their walls protecting against possible invasion from the town, or maybe the principality on the next hilltop.
Yet there are many ways to evaluate prestige beyond U. S. News & World Report rankings and membership in amateur sport’s leagues. One long-standing measure was to judge the state of the theatre: indeed for eighteenth-century observers the vibrancy of the opera in a city or at a court was decisive. Every ruler or urban center wanting to establish cosmopolitan credentials did so through the establishment of an opera house—or in the case of places like Venice and Naples, and eventually London, more than one. It was an enterprise that bankrupted more than a few princes: the best talent was as rare as it was expensive. Yet to be without opera was to be without international respect, not to mention the sensual pleasure it provides.
Each semester the students of Ithaca College mount an opera and thus they rise in esteem from their already lofty hilltop altitudes. The current production of Handel’s Semele premiered last weekend and runs through tomorrow.
It was this polymorphous beast of an opera in an oratorio’s hide that drew me from one hill to the other and into the low-slung concrete modernism of the Ithaca College theater on a bright Sunday afternoon.
Handel had given up his operatic endeavors in 1741 after three decades of persistence, but couldn’t desist from the occasional attempt to smuggle opera’s imperatives into his oratorio seasons, even though the genre was one reserved generally for uplifting biblical themes. First presented by Handel at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1744 as an oratorio, that is to say, without any staging, the Semele brims with eros and excess: that Bacchus is born from Semele’s ashes at the close of the piece hardly counts as a moral lesson worthy of Christian virtue.
Aside from its decadent mythological subject Semele is also lavish in its musical virtuosity. A singing Trojan horse on the Lenten London stage, the work had a scant four performances before it disappeared until its revival in the twentieth century. I saw it first in a semi-staged version at the London Proms back in 1996 at the Albert Hall under the direction of William Christie with a powerhouse cast including the legendary Willard White as Somnus. In that role he delivered a sublimely soporific performance of “Leave me loathsome light” which comes at the outset of the third and final act, one whose opening sinfonia presages the aria with a sublime pair of drowsy bassoons. No one since has captured in music the irresistible seductions of sleep better than Handel.
There is nothing harder than a Handel opera, both to sing and to stage effectively with neither the elaborate machinery of eighteenth-century stagecraft nor the budgets of leading modern opera houses.
However strained the Ithaca College production coffers may be, their Semele is rich in ideas smartly executed, thanks to the imagination and panache of stage director R. B. Schlather a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College. Schlather has a busy schedule ahead of him, including at Puccini and Busoni versions of Turandot at the Bard Festival this summer, performances I hope to attend in the Hudson Valley. Some might object that Schlather’s sparkling creativity siphons attention away from the story and the music of Semele: these purists yearn for the aural hegemony of oratorio over the sensual feast that is opera at its best. Semele is hardly a tale demanding feats of concentration and Schlather’s vibrant spectacle only fuels the sonic fire.
Indeed the music was enriched by the striking lighting effects from Erik Herskowitz and Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic designs. In the midst of the large stage Zimmerman built a smaller one of nude plywood. (It was the only thing naked in the production, though in the second act an orgy was loosely mimed by the Chorus of Loves and Zephyrs in skin-colored shorts and t-shirts, having stripped down first from black hoodies then to tie-dye and finally to flesh-tones. Doubtless the students’ parents in the audience were glad that decorum was observed, instead of the default debaucheries of many professional opera stages.) It is in this trendy box—maybe the living room of a minimalist mansion in the Hollywood hills—that the lustful and jealous gods, women and men strut their stuff and hatch their plans, hide their desires and make them known. The striking stage-within-a stage also had the welcome, and often necessary, effect of helping to project more forcefully the softer of the voices.
Of the many memorable living images Schlather created in and around this set, I’ll mention here only the close of the first act when Semele, having spurned her mortal betrothed, revels in the pleasure given her by her immortal beloved, Jupiter. Atop a metal stand quickly erected in front of the plywood hipster pad, soprano Laura McCauley stood resplendently still while frolicking vocally in the roulades and trills of “Endless pleasure, endless love,” one of Handel’s most hedonistic creations. Her long gossamer train billowed in the breeze of an electric fan held by one of the quartet of buffy boys that periodically entered wearing only tight shorts and boots and showing lots of muscles. The aria and the act were capped by two more of those admiring youths kneeling beneath her and firing off toy guns that shot out glitter like the god’s golden rain that defied gravity in an ecstatic theatrical moment, as if the confetti would never fall back to the boards.
The talent in the title role was often in good company. Semele’s disapproving father was sung by Michael Galvin whose rich voice, also capable of nimble humor, is already strong and will doubtless accrue power in the coming years. His solo opening to the first act quartet, “Why dost though thus untimely grieve” was all paternal concern—or was it lacerating irony? I couldn’t tell which, and that was all for the better. Galvin also took on the part of Somnus and demonstrated that he can sustain the slow malevolent humor of the great sleep aria. The tenor Joseph Michalzyk-Lupa impressed as Jupiter, by turns glowering and solicitous. His sotto voce close to the oratorio’s most famous aria, “Where’r you walk” was a daring and dramatically affecting move.
Aside from staging, Handel’s oratorios have another element that operas lack: ample scope for choruses. In Semele there were many outstanding choral outings for the Ithacans, among them the thunderous Purcellian utterances and echoes of “Avert these omens.”
These singers and the instrumentalists in the pit below may not have always been up to the demands of Handel’s music but there was always life and purpose in what these young musicians did. The conductor responsible for showing them the way was Geoffrey McDonald. Even if the strings were often scratchy and out of tune and skated roughly over many of Handel’s ingenious figures, McDonald nonetheless brought the endless variety and verve of this music to bright life with his magic hands, his players ready to follow them after the lessons he must have imparted in rehearsal. From the musical gestures and expressive turns his deft and daring physical ones elicited from his band and from his singers, it is clear that McDonald is a world-class conductor who could—and should—be leading Handel operas with a cast and orchestra like those I heard back in 1996 at the Royal Albert Hall. McDonald is apparently a frequent collaborator with Schlather; here’s hoping that the pair will often return to Ithaca and that the operatic world beyond South Hill summons them to do great Handelian things in distant places.
What the future holds not even Jupiter knows, but on Sunday last Ithaca College was the highest place above Cayuga’s Waters.